A Translation of a Primary Text on Alexander Pushkin by Adam Mickiewicz

Megan Dixon

Alexander Pushkin did not leave a clear written record of what he thought of Adam Mickiewicz, but Mickiewicz left scholars of Pushkin some very interesting interpretations and reminiscences in the texts of lectures and an essay composed in French. In 1837, upon hearing of Pushkin’s death, Mickiewicz began to write an article which was soon published in the French newspaper Le Globe. Later, during his tenure as lecturer at the Collège de France, he gave a course of lectures on Slavic Literature and mentioned Pushkin several times. These texts can be found in their original French; in Polish translation in complete editions of Mickiewicz’s works; and in Russian translation in one or two editions of Mickiewicz’s works. To my knowledge this is the first translation into English.

No mention of the texts written by Mickiewicz about Pushkin should be made without citing the collection done by Jerzy Świdziński, a Polish scholar who has written on the connection between the two poets and compiled all the comments that Mickiewicz ever made about Pushkin. (An intended companion collection of Pushkin’s comments about Mickiewicz has, to my knowledge, not yet appeared.) The following translation was made directly from the 1955 edition of Mickiewicz’s complete works, and checked against the new 1996 edition of his complete works as well as against the French original. This issue of The Pushkin Review contains a translation of Mickiewicz’s 1837 obituary article; next year’s issue will present a translation of references to Pushkin in Mickiewicz’s Collège de France lectures from 1842 to 1843.

Many of Mickiewicz’s comments and interpretations will surprise students of Pushkin’s life and works. In lecture 28 in 1842, Mickiewicz asserts that Ol′ga was Pushkin’s ideal heroine and fails even to mention Tat′iana by name; in paragraph 13 of the translation below, he concludes that when Pushkin wrote Boris Godunov, he was “still too young to create historical figures.” Nevertheless, despite these idiosyncratic comments, the obituary and lectures provide the fascinating insight of a Pushkin con­temporary into the Decembrists, Pushkin’s composition of Boris Godunov, and the Russian poet’s reception in his own time. They may even attest to different versions of the texts in question in the mid-1820s, the time of the greatest friendship between the poets. Boris Godunov in particular drew Mickiewicz’s attention. The play was published only in 1830, after Mickiewicz had left Russia, but he was present for at least one and possibly two of the private readings that Pushkin made of Godunov after returning to Moscow. Mickiewicz’s comments about this period may be productively compared to Pogodin’s or to Polevoi’s, despite the distance of several years from the actual events. Most striking, perhaps, may be Mickiewicz’s apparent ignorance of most of what Pushkin accomplished between 1829 and 1837; what he knew, he heard from Russian friends who wrote or visited Paris, such as Polevoi and Sobolewski. (In fact, Mickiewicz may have heard about Pushkin’s death directly from Sobolewski in the winter of 1837.)

When we consider, too, that Mickiewicz was an important spokesman for Slavic culture in Europe at a time when the general opinion of Russia was strongly affected by her actions in Poland, and when French public opinion of Russia was supercilious, the obituary and lectures gain an added importance. On the whole, a reader of Mickiewicz’s texts must feel impressed by his evenness; he reproaches Pushkin on poetic grounds, but does not make reference to the controversial poems that Pushkin wrote in response to the 1830–31 Polish Uprising. Nor does he return to the sus­picious tone of his own poem “To My Muscovite Friends” (“Do Przyjaciel Moskali,” 1833), which contains a veiled but bitter allusion to Pushkin’s loyalism.

Finally, an article written by Petr Viazemskii rounds out the conversation. Reading Mickiewicz’s obituary and lectures in juxtaposition with Viazemskii’s 1873 essay “Mickiewicz on Pushkin” (“Mitskevich o Pushkine”) reveals misunderstandings on Mickiewicz’s part as well as on Viazemskii’s. Comments made by Viazemskii which contradict Mickiewicz are included in footnotes to the translation.

As noted by the 1996 edition of Mickiewicz’s complete works, the obituary translation below, originally titled “Pouchkine et le mouvement litteraire en Russie,” appeared on 25 May 1837 in the first issue of Le Globe, Revue des arts, des sciences et des lettres. It was translated as “Puszkin i ruch literacki w Rosji” in 1880 by Leonard Rettle for a Paris edition of Mickiewicz’s works; the 1955 and 1996 Warsaw editions of the complete works have additions by Artur Gorski.

 

Bibliography

Jakóbiec, Marian. “Nad autografem Mickiewiczowskiego wspomnienia o Puszkinie (z 8 podobiznami).” In Rocznik Zakładu Narodowego im. Ossolińskich. Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich,1948, 3: 29–56.

Mickiewicz, Adam. “Puszkin i ruch literacki w Rosji,” Dziela. Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1996, 5: 283–91.

Świdziński, Jerzy. Mickiewicz-Puszkin. Materiale zródłowe i bibliograficzne. Antologia. Mickiewicz o Puszkinie. Poznań: PTPN, 1991.

Viazemskii, Petr Andreievich. “Mitskevich o Pushkine [1873].” In Èstetika i literaturnaia kritika. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1984, 277–96.

 


 

Pushkin and the Literary Movement in Russia

 The years between 1815 and 1830 were a happy period for poets. After the great war, Europe, exhausted by battles and congresses, bulletins and protocols, seemed to have developed an aversion to sad reality and to have raised her eyes to that which is called the ideal world. Exactly at that moment Byron appeared. Soon he acquired in the courts of imagination the same position that Napoleon had up to then occupied in earthly reality. The destiny which had never stopped furnishing Napoleon with pretexts for constant wars fondly granted Byron a long peace. During his poetic reign not a single great event occurred to interrupt the attention of Europe, completely occupied by an English book.

At that same time a young Russian, Alexander Pushkin, finished his studies at the Lycée in Tsarskoe Selo. In that school, constructed on a foreign model, the young man absorbed nothing that might be useful to a poet of his people; instead he was tempted to forget much there. He lost the remnants of domestic traditions, and the customs of his own country became strange to him. The youth of Tsarskoe Selo, however, found an antidote to foreign influence in reading poetic works, particularly Zhukovskii’s. This glorious man—first an imitator of German writers, then their competitor—strove to give Russian poetry a nationally charac­teristic (narodowe) stamp by singing the legends and tales of his country. Thus Zhukovskii laid a foundation for the formation of Pushkin; but Byron tore him away too early from that good school and carried him for a long time into the fantastic retreats and grottoes of romanticism.[1]

After reading Byron’s “Corsair,” Pushkin felt himself to be a poet.[2] He wrote and published a great number of works one after another, most famous among them The Prisoner of the Caucasus (Kavkazskii plennik) and The Fountain of Bakhchisarai (Bakhchisaraiskii fontan). The appearance of these works awakened an indescribable rapture: the crowd of readers was surprised by the novelty of themes and poetic forms; among the women, the young man’s deep sensibility and the wealth of his imagination aroused amazement; writers were struck by the force, precision and elegance of the style. Pushkin immediately became known everywhere as the foremost poet in Russia. This easy success, exciting in him a hunger for ever newer and swifter fame, strongly hampered the peaceful development of his talent; for Pushkin was then a child, full of flights of imagination, it is true, but no less a child; the moral essence in men ripens more slowly in the North than in the West. The societal soil there contains doubtless fewer seeds of germination than in old Europe; the lit­erary atmosphere which reigns there is not to the same degree charged with the electricity of passions. So Pushkin began to create too early and dissipated his talent; he overestimated his strength, shot up too early into the high heavens, where it was difficult for him to maintain himself on his own strength, then fell into the sphere of influence of Byron and revolved around that star like a planet linked to its system and shining with its light. Thus in works of his first style all is Byronic, including subject, characters, idea, and form. But in spite of this Pushkin was not so much an imitator of Byron’s works as he was possessed by the spirit of his favorite author. He was not a fanatical Byronist; we should rather call him a Byronizer. Had the works of the English poet not existed, Pushkin would have been hailed as the foremost poet of the epoch.

Such a phenomenon augured a great literary upheaval in the North; from that time conversations in salons revolved only around the advantages or faults of the new poetic system; the battle between classicism and romanticism was ready to break out any minute; and—of particular interest—at the same time a political revolution was being prepared.

It is necessary to know that, in that country, everyone is more or less dissatisfied with the government; everyone criticizes it in private, and it is decried in public as well. Nevertheless everyone continues to work in his office, guards are recruited, in a word, no one ceases to serve the government. A foreigner who does not know the nature and significance of this opposition, so old and widespread, but always posing so little threat, seeing everywhere enemies of the existing order of things while nowhere meeting with defenders, comes to the conclusion that Russia is ready for the commencement of a revolution, that she awaits only the right mo­ment, only the call to arms.

In the end this disposition of thought, this revolutionary language used by society deceived the Russians themselves, and, unhappily, especially the most noble among them. Several aristocrats and officers, enthu­siasts of freedom, came to believe that all of their countrymen were animated by these same feelings. Finally the moment came to overthrow despotism and replace it with a constitutional monarchy or a republic. Devising this plot in the shadows of clubs, they tried simultaneously to spread abroad the concepts of freedom with the help of personal contacts and books. Writers in Russia form a sort of brotherhood bound by many ties; almost all of them are either wealthy or else state functionaries; they write most often solely for the acquisition of fame and consequence. And since talent has not yet become a commodity there, it rarely happens among them that you meet with an outburst of professional jealousy or hostility on the basis of personal interests; at least I never came into con­tact with a single example of this.[3] At that time writers loved to gather together often, they saw each other almost every day, and they led a jolly life amid banquets, group readings, and friendly debates. It was not, con­sequently, a difficult thing for the conspirators—of whom many were leading writers—to win over numerous partisans among friends in Petersburg and Moscow.

Soon after also, as though at a given command, all of Russian belles-lettres went over en masse to the side of the opposition. Those who did not have the boldness to attack the government with written works withdrew into a sinister silence with relation to it. It should be noted to the credit of Russian writers that under these circumstances they showed a constancy of spirit and a disinterestedness of which it would be difficult to find an example in countries with much more freedom and more developed culture. All that mass of money which the Russian cabinet directed towards the purchase of so many obedient defenders [abroad] would not have sufficed, in my opinion, to buy from a Russian author with any name at all a single laudatory journalistic article, one single small encomium, one single pleasant word. To such a degree was this true that at the time of the coronation of Tsar Nikolai [I] not a single poet could be found in Moscow who would celebrate this occasion; and the ceremony would have passed unobserved by the broad masses, if not for a foreign bard who had come from Paris to intone a zealously legitimizing dithyramb at the feet of His Imperial Russian Mightiness.

Pushkin, following the opposition like all of his friends, produced in the last years of the reign of Alexander [I] several epigrams against the Emperor’s person and his government; he even set down “Ode to a dag­ger.”[4] These volatile works circulated in manuscript from Petersburg to Odessa; everywhere they were read, discussed, admired, and gained for the poet more popularity than all of his later works, although the latter were of unquestionably greater significance. Undoubtedly to dare to write such a piece in Russia one must have more boldness than to create a disturbance in Paris or London. And so from that time people began to look on Pushkin as a leader of the intellectual opposition, as a political per­sonage dangerous to the government. The Tsar judged it necessary to for­bid him residence in the capital and sent him away to the provinces.[5] This exile saved his life; for shortly afterward the conspiracy was discovered. The insurgent movement in Petersburg came to nothing; in the south it was suppressed, and the unhappy revolutionaries perished on the scaffold or disappeared forever in the mines of Siberia.

Meanwhile the successor to Alexander, Nikolai, seemed to ease and change the system, at least in relation to Pushkin. He called him in for an audience, showed him particular attention, and had a long conversation with him. This was an event of great importance! For it had never before happened that a Tsar conversed with a person who would be called a pro­letarian in France and who in Russia has much less standing than a proletarian here. For Pushkin, although he was an aristocrat by birth, had however no rank in the administrative hierarchy.[6] And a person without rank in Russia has no social weight: they call him a honorable person, a superfluous being.[7]

At this memorable audience the Tsar spoke with great interest about poetry. For the first time a Russian Tsar spoke about belles-lettres with one of his subjects![8] He encouraged the poet to write more compositions, he gave him leave to publish whatever he wished, without reference to the censor. Pushkin received in this way a precedent in the affair of freedom of the press; and history should not overlook the fact that he was the first who enjoyed it in Russia. Tsar Nikolai showed at this juncture great in­sight: he was able to evaluate the poet; he guessed that Pushkin was too acute to allow himself to abuse this exceptional privilege, and too gener­ous of heart not to conserve in a grateful memory such a magnanimous gesture. However, the liberals looked with a disapproving eye on this drawing together of the two mighty powers. Pushkin began to be accused of betraying the patriotic endeavor; and since his age and experience be­gan to lay on him the responsibility of greater restraint in word and greater caution in action, people did not hesitate to attribute this change in behavior to the mercenary motives of ambition.

Around that time the poem The Gypsies (Tsygany) appeared, and later Mazeppa,[9] outstanding works, evidence of the developing powers of the talent of Pushkin: these two poems were already better based in reality. Their subject is simple, the characters are better understood and drawn with firmness, the style here already seems free from any romantic exag­geration. Unfortunately, the Byronic form still cramped him like the armor of Saul hindered the movements of the young David; but it was already clear that he was getting ready to cast it off.[10]

These nuances, signalling the transition of the artist from one manner to another, stand out clearly in the most beautiful, most original, most nationally characteristic (narodowe) of his works, in Onegin. In composing this romance Pushkin published it in parts, as Byron did his Don Juan. At the beginning Pushkin went only in the footsteps of the English poet; soon, however, he tried to go on his own, and finally reached originality. The theme and characters of Onegin belong to realistic life, to Russian domestic life. But the poet possessed the secret of ennobling everything, and idealizing without falling into exaggeration of anything. In the ordi­nary happenings of private life he was able to discover tragic motifs or scenes of high comedy.

Pushkin also wrote a drama of which Russians think very highly and which they place next to the dramas of Shakespeare. I do not share their opinion; however it would take too long here to justify my conviction. It is enough to note that Pushkin was still too young to create historical fig­ures. He gave only a sketch of a drama, a sketch which indicates clearly what his talent would have been capable of: Et tu Shakespeare eris, si fata sinant![11]

The play Boris Godunov contains elements, and even scenes, which are glorious. Particularly the prologue seems to me so original and so sublime that I do not hesitate to consider it as unique of its kind and I cannot restrain myself from devoting a few words to it.

After the death of the Tsar Ivan the Cruel or Terrible, Boris Godunov usurped the Muscovite throne, having removed the son of his predecessor. Soon afterwards, a pretender, who gave himself out as the true heir to the crown, came with a Polish army, occupied Moscow and reigned there for a time under the name of Dimitrii. This action becomes the foundation of the play. The action plays out during the time of Godunov’s reign. The prologue begins in a monastery cell. An old monk is finishing the writing of a chronicle of the previous reign. He strings together reflections on his work with the enthusiasm of an author and the dignity of a religious man. At that moment a young novitiate, sunk in sleep at the feet of the chronicler, begins to toss in the grip of a terrible nightmare. Through sleep he speaks surprising names and refers to events that he could not know about. Awaking at last, he tells of visions of battles, disturbances, upheaval. This tale of his, whose significance he does not understand, becomes a supplement to the chronicle of the monk; it allows us to foresee the future and becomes a prophetic symbol for the whole play. We guess that this novitiate is the future pretender, Dimitrii Samozvanets.

This play, like everything that Pushkin had published up to that time, does not give the true measure of his talent. At the time of which we are speaking, he had realized only a part of that calling which he was ca­pable of fulfilling; he was then thirty years old. Those who knew him then had noticed a significant change in him. Instead of greedily devouring foreign romances and journals which up to then had almost exclusively occupied his attention, now he eagerly listened to retellings of folk tales (ludowe), national songs (narodowe) and the history of his country. He threw off, it seemed, his foreign inheritance; grew into Russia; put down roots in his native soil. Simultaneously his conversation, in which seeds of his future works had often been observed, became ever more dignified. He loved to carry on conversations on elevated religious and social issues of which his countrymen seemed not even to be aware.[12] He evidently was undergoing an inner change. As a person, as an artist, he was undoubt­edly in the process of reshaping his previous behavior, or rather of investi­gating the comportment appropriate to him. He ceased to write poetry[13] and published only a few historical works, which could be considered as a sort of preparatory work. But what was he preparing for? To shine forth at some future point with erudition? No. He held authors cheap who had no goal, no purpose.[14] The philosophical skepticism and artistic coolness of Goethe was not dear to him. What was taking place in his soul? Had he absorbed in silence a breath of that spirit which animates the work of Manzoni and Pellico and which seems to fertilize the thought of Thomas Moore, who likewise fell silent?[15] Or, who knows, perhaps his imagination was elevated by the presence of an idea in the tradition of Saint-Simon or Fourier?[16] I do not know; in his occasional works and in his conversation we can find traces of both tendencies.[17] However it was, I am convinced that his poetic silence was a favorable omen for Russian literature. I ex­pected that he would appear again soon as a new man, in the full force of his talent, matured by experience, and strengthened by long exercise. Everyone who knew him shared my desires.[18] One pistol shot ruined all these hopes.

The bullet which struck down Pushkin dealt a terrible blow to intellectual Russia. Certainly Russia still has great authors: Zhukovskii remains, a poet full of stateliness, charm, and feeling; Krylov, a fable-writer full of inventiveness, incomparable in verbal expression; Prince Viazemskii, whose wit would shine even among the French; no one however can replace Pushkin. It is not given to any country to produce more than one person who could combine to such a high degree such diverse abilities, seeming to be mutually exclusive. Pushkin, admired by readers for his poetic talent, amazed listeners with the vivacity, subtlety, and acuity of his thought. He was gifted with an unusual memory, fundamental good sense, and a delicate and refined taste. When he was heard discussing foreign or domestic governmental politics, it was possible to take him for a person gone gray among public affairs and subsisting on a daily reading of parliamentary debates. He made himself many enemies with his witticisms and sarcasm. They took their revenge on him through calumny. I knew this Russian poet fairly well and for a fairly good length of time; I observed in him a character too much given to fleeting impressions and sometimes shallow, but always generous, noble-minded, and capable of passion. His faults seemed to be connected to the circumstances in which he grew up, while what was good in him came from the depths of his heart. He died at the age of thirty-eight.

 

A Friend of Pushkin
Principia College



 
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Dixon, Megan.  "A Translation of a Primary Text on Alexander Pushkin by Adam Mickiewicz."  Pushkin Review 04 (2001): 133 - 42. Retrieved from: <http://www.pushkiniana.org/index.php/vol-4-new-translations-/211-dixon-translation04>.


[1] The extent of Byron’s influence on Pushkin, and the effective duration of this influence, are points of contention among students of Pushkin, although it is generally agreed that Pushkin “broke away” from Byronic influences as early as 1825. The degree of Pushkin’s “romanticism” is also a topic still frequently re-explored.

[2] The Corsair” was written in 1813, published perhaps 1814 or 1815. It is generally agreed that Pushkin first read Byron’s poetry during a Crimean trip with the Raevskii family in 1821. It is worth noting that Pushkin’s early fame actually began not only with his epigrams and “Liberty: An Ode” (“Vol¢nost¢: Oda”) but with “Ruslan and Liudmila,” his first long poem, written 1818–20; excerpts from it appeared in literary journals in March 1820, and the whole poem appeared in August, not long after Pushkin’s May departure for exile.

[3] In his article “Mitskevich o Pushkine,” Petr Viazemskii here interrupts his quotation of Mickiewicz’s text to comment that “it is necessary to remember that Mickiewicz speaks of the literature of the 1820s which is all that he knew of Russia” (281).

[4] Pushkin’s poem “Kinzhal” (The Dagger, PSS 2: 37) was written in 1821, while he was in southern exile. It uses the conventions of Roman satiric and patriotic poetry, using mythology and Roman heroes to disguise the true personages discussed. The dagger of the title is the sudden revenge and justice of the gods against tyrants. The Russian edition of Pushkin notes that “during Pushkin’s lifetime this poem received wide circulation in manuscript form, and its French translation appeared in the book of Anselo Six Months in Russia (Paris, 1827)” (PSS 2: 401).

[5] Notice here one of Mickiewicz’s many small slips: “Kinzhal” was written while Pushkin was already in exile in Odessa, and did not directly lead to his further exile in Mikhailovskoe.

[6] Viazemskii comments, “Here Mickiewicz is carried away by Western views of Russia. Without straining himself, he could have mentioned, for example, Peter I, who often chatted with Russian proletarians” (282).

[7] It has been noted that Mickiewicz here probably conflates two Russian words, chestnyi (honest) and chastnyi (private). A “private” person (chastnyi chelovek) would be simply one who had no government rank, not equivalent to the phrase “an honorable man” (chestnyi chelovek), and certainly neither means “superfluous.”

[8] Viazemskii comments, “Mickiewicz again departs from the facts: he forgets Catherine the Great and the relationship between Alexander [I] and Karamzin” (282).

[9] Here Mickiewicz refers to “Poltava,” written 1828–29, published in 1829, about the Ukrainian hetman Mazepa. It is worth noting that the epigraph to “Poltava” is from Byron’s Don Juan.

[10] Viazemskii protests that the Byronic influence was still tangible in Tsygany, but that in Poltava “Pushkin already stood firmly on his own ground” (282).

[11] “And you too would have been Shakespeare, if the fates had permitted!” The notes to Vengerov’s 1909 edition of Pushkin’s works report that Mickiewicz made this exclamation after hearing Pushkin’s reading of Boris Godunov for the first time. See Pushkin, ed. S. A. Vengerov (St.-Peterburg: Brokgauz-Efron, 1909), 3: 568.

[12] Viazemskii protests, “With whom did Pushkin enter into disputes if his fellowcountrymen and contemporaries were not in a position to understand these questions? He had little contact with foreigners: his relations with them were purely formal” (283). Mickiewicz seems to be claiming special access to Pushkin’s conversations.

[13] Viazemskii comments, “Not entirely true. To the end he wrote the occasional poem, if not in such quantity as before then imprinted with still greater sobriety [trezvost¢] and maturity” (283).

[14] Viazemskii: “This also is hardly true” (284).

[15] Alessandro Mazzoni (1785–1873), author of I Promessi Sposi (1825–26). Silvio Pellico (1789–1854), Italian romantic poet. Thomas Moore (1779–1852), Irish poet and satirist, a good friend of Lord Byron’s, known for his long poem Lalla Rookh. He retired from poetry at the request of his mother.

[16] Comte de Saint-Simon, Claude Henri de Rouvroy (1760–1825), French social philosopher; regarded as the founder of French socialism. Charles Fourier (1772–1837), French utopian socialist.

[17] Viazemskii asserts that this statement results from Andrzej Towianski’s influence, however Mickiewicz was not yet acquainted with Towianski in 1837, when he wrote this obituary.

[18] Note that nearly eight years had elapsed between the time that Mickiewicz last saw Pushkin in 1829 and the latter’s death in 1837. Mickiewicz’s comment indicates how little he followed Pushkin’s career after his departure from Russia.